Sunday, March 11th, 2018 – A Sermon on Numbers 21:4-9


John 3:14-21
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Numbers 21:4-9
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. 2 Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble 3 and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. 17 Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; 18 they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. 19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; 20 he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. 21 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. 22 And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy. 


Ephesians 2:1-10
1 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved– 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

This might be strange for me to say, but I get a little nervous when people actually start reading their Bible. I have been reminded over and over again in the past few weeks how dangerous the Bible can be to how people see the world but also for how people see God.

We put a lot of pressure on the Bible – we seem to think that ever verse needs to have some message or morality tale for my life. Or that we need to understand what every verse means in order to be faithful believers. Or that we need to be able to explain and make sense of everything in the Bible in order for the Bible to still be the true Word of God.

It is like we have been taught to think of the Bible as linked chain that connects us with God. And every single verse in the Bible is a link in this chain – and if any verse is not factually true or if we disagree with a certain passage that link in the chain breaks and the entirety of Scripture collapses and we lose our connection with faith and with God.

Which is a lot of pressure to put on the Bible.

You’ve seen those black and read warning labels that say, “DANGER: Contents under extreme pressure. Handle with care”? I think we should put one of those labels on every single Bible we give out. DANGER: Contents under extreme pressure. Handle with care.

 This is my fear when a story like the one we heard from the book of Numbers is read in church. When the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness complaining about the length of this road trip and the quality and quantity of the food and in response, it says that God sends them poisonous snakes to nip at their heels and kill them until they say they are sorry, in which God gives the magic antidote of staring at a bronze serpent to heal the people of their poison.

A story like this…either it convinces you that God is a god who rewards the obedient and who sends poisonous snakes to the disobedient. Then we start thinking that everything happens for a reason (like cancer, or snow storms, or open parking spots close to the doors of Target) and from there your life of faith is founded on fear and superstition.

Or a story like this…convinces you that God is cruel, this whole thing is a sham, and you abandon the church all together.

That’s a lot of pressure resting on one text in this linked-chain of scripture. That is a lot of damage one text can do.

But Preacher and Professor David Lose suggests a different way of looking at the Bible. Rather than a linked-chain, where each passage, each verse, holds an equal amount of weight, he suggests that we see scripture as a series of concentric circles. At the center are the foundational texts of our faith. The ones we are clear and confident about what they say about God. For me, at the very center would be Romans 8 – nothing can separate you from the love of God. But then in the middle and outer circles, are the texts that are less clear. We aren’t sure what they mean. They are still important but they’ve had less influence on our faith.

This morning, we’ve heard three  of what I think are our central texts.

  • From the Psalm: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever
  • From Ephesians: God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved useven when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved
  • From John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 

Those are the big and steady rocks of our faith. We can carry those central beliefs about God – that God is good, full of great love for us, non-condemning – into the outer rings of Scripture like Numbers 21. We got out trusting that our firm foundation of faith is not reliant upon understanding this one confusing text.

But now that we have grounded ourselves in our central beliefs about God, I want to venture a bit into the story about the poisonous snakes because there is wisdom about God and about us that we can find there.

Now, let me just say this first, and I’ve said this before when preaching, and I know some of you are a bit uncomfortable with it, but I feel like I have pastoral responsibility to say it, so here goes: I do not know for sure what this text means. But there are parts that speak truth into my life and perhaps they will for you.

Briefly, a little context. The Israelites have been set free from slavery in Egypt and they’ve been wandering in the desert looking for the promised land for many years. And they have a tendency to complain.

They complain against Moses – their leader – that they don’t like the bitter water, so God shows Moses how to sweeten it. They complain against Moses about the lack of food, so God gave them manna – the bread from heaven. They complained against Moses that they were thirsty, so God commands Moses to strike a rock, and out comes gushing water. They complained against Moses that there was no meat – no protein. So the Lord sends quails their way.

And then today we hear again about their complaining. But this time – it is different. This time they don’t just complain against Moses. They complain against God.

The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 

Now that is pretty whiney. And did you notice that there complaints don’t even make sense? We have no food! And we detest this miserable food! Clearly something is going on here.

But I think there is more going on here than just Israelites who are hangry – to use Bruce Benson’s word from last week.

It isn’t just their stomachs growling and their throats parched – their hearts are turning to stone.

We detest this miserable food. You see they’ve begun to resent the manna – the food – that God gave them when they were hungry. It had been for them a physical sign of the grace and love of God that they once were thankful for, but now they have grown bored with it. They became ungrateful and started to resent the gifts of God that once sustained them. They have started to distrust that it was enough to get them through. They thought they would die in the wilderness, which is to say that they no longer trusted in the grace of God to get them through the wilderness.

In short, they find the grace of God boring and untrustworthy.

Years ago, I had the joy of getting to meet and hear Jay Bakker speak. Some of you remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Well Jay is their son. With his whole life in the public eye as Jim and Tammy’s boy, much like his parents, his life went into a tailspin.  At 13 years old, he started drinking and doing drugs just to get away from the chaos that was his life. But now he has been sober for 18 years and is a pastor in the Cities and a well-known speaker and author.

But this is what Jay told us. He said that he was in church his entire life, but never discovered grace until he was 20 years old. Sure, he heard people talk and sing about grace, but it always sounded empty and meaningless. Instead, the message he was really taught was that God hated him and that he was bound for hell unless he could be a good enough person. Which is not grace, right?

But Jay said that grace, real grace, amazing grace, saved his life.[2] Because finally someone came along and told him – Jay, God loves you unconditionally exactly as you are. Whether you are drunk or sober. Whether you’ve got it together or whether you don’t. God loves you all the same.

 And then Jay told our group that when he was invited to speak to us, he was told not to spend too much time on grace, because we’ve all heard that before and the organizers didn’t want u getting bored and to start playing on our smart phones. And so Jay said, “Well, I know you guys know grace. But I’m afraid you’ve become bored with it. What you need to know is that there are thousands of people out there who have never heard about grace.”

The Israelites got bored with God’s grace, with God’s gracious manna from heaven, meant to sustain them. And here’s the truth: so do we.

Israelites stop trusting God will see them through the wilderness. And so do we.

Sometimes we stop trusting in that grace to actually have an impact on our lives and the lives around us.

And notice that in the story, it is then, in the very next sentence, that poisonous snakes show up.

I do not believe that God sends poisonous snakes to kill people but the Israelites thought there was a link. We complained against God, and now there are snakes. This must be God punishing us.

But could it be that the moment we stop trusting in a loving God, when we stop being grateful for the grace of God, when we stop trusting that God is here to save us and not condemn, when we stop believing that God sees us and all people as precious and beloved, when stop trusting that God will see us through the wilderness times of our life, that the moment we get bored with God’s grace, we get bitten by a snake. And then infected with a kind of venom of fear and resentment and ingratitude that hardens our hearts, and we die.

Now we need to be careful with death in the Bible because in the Bible you can be dead and still have a pulse. Did you hear the first line of Ephesians? You were dead in sin, but God who is rich in mercy has made you alive in Christ.

You can be dead and still have a pulse. Last Wednesday evening, during David Kelvie’s powerful message, he was telling us about his struggles in life, and his self-destructive decisions. And then he said these words (and David, I don’t know if you even remember this), he said, “Toward the end of my life…” and then he stop quickly and corrected himself, “Toward the end of my walk without God…” And I thought that moment was profound. I don’t think he misspoke. Because to some extent that was the end of his life – that life. He was dead back then. But then God made him alive again.

So, these Israelites have been infected with a poison and they are dying and they confess to Moses because they knew something was wrong and they pray for the snakes to go away. But notice that the snakes do not in fact go away. God tells Moses to fashion a bronze snake and put on a pole so the people can look at it and be healed. We learn that God does not take poisonous things out of our life, but rather God gives us the courage to look them straight in the eye. And in fact, we will be healed when we can look at them and face the poisonous parts of our life.

This season of Lent seems to be designed to get us to face the poisonous snakes in our lives. And so I want to close with two questions.

One: how’s the sense of gratitude in your life?

Brain science research tells us that if we can find one thing to be grateful for everyday, our life will be more joyful. Now, I’m not naïve. I know many of you are living through your own wildernesses right now and it can be overly simple to say, “Just be thankful for what you have.” That’s not what I am saying. What I am saying is that there is manna in the wilderness and when we stop looking for it or we resent it, our hearts grow hard and we die.

My second question: where have the snakes snuck into to your life? What’s poisoning you right now? And how are you avoiding that truth? I promise you, if you act like it is not there, they will just continue to bite you. But if you can lift that snake up into the light and look at it – you just might be healed of its poisonous power.

So, in the remaining weeks of this season, I invite you into the spiritual practice of gratitude – finding one thing each day to be thankful for – and the spiritual practice of staring snakes in the face – being honest about your life.

And now receive a blessing – may the grace and love of God never lose it’s flavor in your life. May you never grow bored of it. May it never leave you empty and hungry. But may it fill you up and sustain you and may it guard your hearts and your minds through the wilderness now and always.

Amen.

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